Mayakoba’s El Camaleón Provides Changing Challenge

Most standard, 18-hole golf courses around the world are divided into two sections: the first nine and the second nine. El Camaleón Mayakoba Golf Course, however, is different. Here, the breakdown is actually into three groups: the jungle, the mangrove and the beach.

“That’s why we’re called El Camaleón (or the chameleon),” says the course superintendent, Logan Spurlock. “Because you start in one place and end up in another.”

Competitors at this week’s Latin America Amateur Championship (LAAC) will see the full spectrum as they make their way through the tournament’s four rounds, just as the professionals on the PGA Tour do at the annual event staged here.

The different landscapes are easy to see. The tropical Mayan jungle, with its bending, serpentine trees, is the course’s bookend: it creeps in from the sides of the first hole and then again at the end of the opening nine and start to the finishing side, as well as on the closing 18th.

The sandy beaches alongside the Caribbean Sea surround the fourth hole and the course’s signature 15th – a stunning par 3 – while the mangrove wetlands fill in on the rest. The treacherous, swampy mangrove essentially serves as the course’s sponge, Spurlock says, soaking up the moisture that runs off from higher ground.

“If you hit it into the jungle and find your ball, you can play it,” Spurlock says, laughing. “If you hit it into the mangrove? You can get your ball out of there, but I wouldn’t recommend it.”

The LAAC competitors will face largely the same challenge that the PGA Tour players battled in November, as Spurlock says the course will be arranged in much the same way. The greens will run nearly as fast, but the rough will be the same length and the key to success is identical: superior iron play.

At just over 7,000 yards, hitting a long drive is not nearly as critical as consistently finding the fairway to set up approaches.

Rafael Campos, who plays on the PGA Tour, said he was going to share his yardage books from Mayakoba with the Puerto Rican golfers in the LAAC and pass along all his local knowledge.

That insight will be valuable, as several holes reward smart play. Navigating the famous “cave bunker” on the par-5 7th – there is, literally, a cavern in the middle of the fairway – takes some creative shot-making, for example. David Lopez, the director of golf at El Cameleón, said he hopes to see some drama on the third and 17th holes. That’s where – depending on tee placement – some players may be able to drive the green on the two par 4s.

Risks abound, though, and Lopez speculated that Mexican players may have a slight advantage since a number of national tournaments are played at Mayakoba each year. Alvaro Ortiz, the defending LAAC champion who played at the PGA Tour event here last year, said the same.

“They do what you need to do to win on this kind of course, which is hit it very well from the tee,” Ortiz said. “I think a few of them do it perfectly.”